“Why can’t you sit still?” I remember admonishing my daughter when she was little. Picture a 6 year old with two pigtails sitting on the stool ready to practice piano. Her legs hanging half way up and swinging. One hand disappearing from the keys every few minutes to brush her hair away from the face or to scratch an itch before one line of the song was completely played.
Then an epiphany. One morning, I noticed the number of times I moved during my breathing practice. I moved because of low back pain and tight hips. I moved because of tight shoulders and my foot falling asleep. How long was I sitting? Possibly 15 minutes. My attention was on my sleeping foot and lower back, not on breathing. My mind was agitated about the pain and discomfort and was not calm. My practice, putting it mildly – was pitiful. I needed to find a comfortable seat first before I could make a dent in the breathing practices.
Asana as seat
Asana is the crucial third limb of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga.
आसन asana is popularly translated as pose; it also refers to the place where one sits. Patanjali, the scribe of the text, Yoga Sutras writes – asana is “to be seated in a position that is steady and comfortable”. He implied the ability to sit for extended periods in this position is essential for success in meditation.
It is safe to say that Patanjali was not referring the poses posted on social media or to the variety of the poses we practice in class. He intended asana, posture as a seat for Pranayama and Dharana (breathing and concentration) practices. Asanas designated for meditation will be discussed in another post.
These days, the word asana conjures up images of perfectly aligned, fashionably attired magazine cover models in warrior poses, handstands, and impressive backbends. This tells us that the physical practice of yoga poses equals ‘asana’.
Asana as pose
I have not read them all, but here are a few yogic texts that mention asana, as pose.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (3000BCE – 1800 BCE) focuses on transcending the body and mastering meditation. It does not mention a single asana by name, merely specifies the characteristics of a good asana, i.e., steadiness and comfort required to stay seated for long periods for meditation. You can choose a seat from a few asanas that are recommended for meditation. Once chosen this asana must be practiced to mastery. Mastery then indicates that the student can stay motionless in comfort for upto three hours.
The Goraksha Samhita (10-12 century CE) an early Hata Yoga text, describes the origin of 84 classic asanas. Observing that there are as many postures as there are beings, the text implies that Lord Shiva assigned one asana to a group of 100,000 beings out of the 8,400,000 species to be in existence; thus giving 84 asanas in total. However, only two are described in detail: padmasana, lotus pose and siddhasana, accomplished pose; interestingly both are meditation poses.
The Hata Yoga Pradipika (15th century CE) considers these asanas –siddhasana, padmasana, bhadrasana and simhasana important among 84 asanas. This text also has details of breathing practices, yogic diet, and other crucial tips for Hata Yoga practice.
The Hata Ratnavali (17th century CE) attempts to list the 84 asanas, although it appears a few may not have appropriate Samskritham translations or proper description. It appears only 52 asanas in the Hatha Ratnavali are described.
The Gheranda Samhita (late 17th century CE) tells us that Lord Shiva taught 8,400,000 asanas, out of which 84 are prominent, and 32 are most useful for everyday practice.
In Shiva Samhita (17–18th century CE) the poses ugrasana and svastikasana replace the latter two of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Ancient yogis lived during the times where processed foods, variety desserts and carbonated drinks were not available. They did not sit behind desks for long periods of time. It is possible they did not view their asana practice as a ‘work out’. They wanted to transcend the mind. They practiced mastery of asana for meditation purposes only.
The physical and emotional challenges of modern life make it difficult to maintain a healthy body and mind. What we buy, what we eat, and what chemicals we use in our houses, yards, in our cars, negatively affect our bodies and the world around us. Furthermore, the physical wear and tear due to lack of mobility prevents us from sitting still at the desk, let alone maintaining a steady and comfortable asana.
Here, asanas as poses, aide in ridding our bodies of impurities and blockages. In asana class, we twist, bend forward and backward, move sideways, and end up upside down to cleanse our bodies, promote healing and sustain health. Asana as a physical exercise – mindfully and respectfully performed, places the body in specific positions to promote strength and flexibility, and uses the movement of breath to cultivate awareness, concentration and relaxation.
I have benefited immensely from this practice of asana – strengthened my lower back, released the tension in my neck and shoulders. Now, with the help of a few props, I am able to sit motionless and concentrate on my breathing exercises for short periods of time. I am grateful.
First, remember, poses can be challenging depending on your fitness and health. If you are struggling in certain poses, use props for proper alignment. Then settle into the posture for as long as your breath is comfortable. This supportive practice creates a space in your mind to find peace in a place you may find unpleasant. These poses, despite challenging, can open blocks and strengthen the body, and by extension, train us to find solace in difficult situations. Although, adopting the attitude of ahimsa, non-harming may hurt your pride, it is imperative to avoid the risk of injury. I can vouch for that from my own practice.
Second, be careful not to designate favorite poses and get attached to them. In poses that seem pleasant and wonderful, realize that change is inevitable and practice santosha, contentment as you transition out of these favorites. While my favorite asanas led me to ‘like’ one instructor and enjoy the class, my non-favorite poses made me dislike another, leaving me dissatisfied after the class. It took me years to understand that the instructor had nothing to do with the way my ego was operating -using likes and dislikes of asana to manipulate my emotions in a classroom setting.
Next, be open to new poses and variations to the poses. Do not become dull or stagnant by always doing the same asanas or using the same focus in poses. Watch out for habit-forming patterns – mental and physical, and prepare yourself to welcome change – both in asanas and instructors. It becomes difficult to accept change when you operate from old habits. Conversely, don’t view your yoga class as a source of entertainment by looking for new poses all the time. That will leave you critical of your instructor and discontented with your class.
Finally, take a moment to reflect on how you can give valuable feedback instead of judging your yoga instructors. Every instructor is a student first. She or he began their practice on your side of the room and worked their way to the other side with the intention to share this wonderful practice. While there is always room for improvement, each instructor has patiently developed a style that they work from, while adding and modifying periodically. Place your mat in front of the classroom and ask yourself – how would you teach the class if you were the instructor.
Patanjali’s Sutra 2:46 states, स्थिरसुखमासनम्॥२.४६॥ – Sthira Sukham Asanam; “a posture that is steady and comfortable is called Asana.” Make your seat an asana-seat. Only then real “yoga” practice – the practice to transcend the mind in order to uncover inner joy – begins.